too hot to graduate?

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“Sure I’m an asshole that loves to take advantage of women who are willing to bang me without me having to offer too much, but at the same time I am also a gentleman that knows how to treat a lady with respect and compassion just like any other true lady should be treated.”A Typical Bloke

A friend sent me a link about an Orange County mom’s blog post in which she slut-shames the girls her sons go to school with (no doubt endearing herself to their parents in the process) by questioning the outfits they wore to graduation.

6 REASONS WHY I’M GLAD I DON’T HAVE DAUGHTERS, she wrote, and then posted photographs of the girls – subtracting their heads, so the emphasis is on their anonymous body parts – dressed in shorts, short skirts and heels. She provided the kind of saccharine commentary that makes someone, somewhere, want to punch a unicorn: “The little gal in the nude mini…won my award for the most inappropriate outfit of the night…..This girl, bless her heart, showed the entire audience her panties as she ascended the stairs to collect her award…”

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And if someone was to point out to this blogger – bless her heart – that her blog post shows a stunning disrespect to these teenage women, I’m sure she would retaliate the way many people would: girls and women who dress inappropriately – read: sexy — don’t deserve respect, in a “they’re sending out all the wrong signals” kind of way.

It’s a strange culture. On the one hand it teaches girls that the only appropriate appearance is one that works the hotness, and a very particular kind of hotness at that. (Don’t hate the players. Hate the game….) On the other hand it teaches girls (and others) that hotness is the domain of the slut, the bimbo, the asking-for-it rape victim. The shorter the hemline, the lower the IQ.

Although in truth, it’s the heterosexual man’s IQ that tends to drop a few points in the presence of a sexy – and ‘distracting’ – woman. Behind all this concern that female high school students learn to dress appropriately – quit with the tank tops, the strapless dresses, the tight pants! – is concern with the comfort level of the poor innocent boys (and, later, the men) who are absolutely victimized by such incapacitating, disorganizing hotness. You, as the female of the species, must protect men from their discomfort with your sexuality by removing said sexuality from the equation.

Not everyone agrees with this. Jessica Valenti argues, while discussing New York’s Stuyvesant High School’s controversial dress code:

“In addition to the violation of female students’ rights, the thinking behind the code sends a dangerous message to young women – that they are responsible for the way in which society objectifies and sexualizes them.

Take this comment from Principal Stanley Teitel: “Many young ladies wear denim skirts which are very tight and are short to begin with, and when they sit down, they only rise up, because there’s nowhere else to go…. The bottom line is, some things are a distraction, and we don’t need to distract students from what is supposed to be going on here, which is learning.”

It’s not the responsibility of female students to mitigate the male gaze. You find female bodies “distracting”? That’s your problem, not women’s. Society teaches that women exist to be looked at, objectified and sexualized—it’s up to others to make sure that they don’t contribute to that injustice.

The students at Stuyvesant are some of the brightest out there—they want to learn and to engage with each other and the world around them. Whether or not they wear tank tops or shorts while they do so is irrelevant.

Women are not just sexualized but female sexuality itself is villainized. Boys will be boys and men will be men, but girls and women will use their beauty and gender to exploit men. A truly good woman is a pure woman; a truly pure woman is a woman who hasn’t had sex.

This underlying story about women – going all the way back to the one about a girl, a boy, an apple, and the fall of humankind – is what makes slut-shaming possible. What you’re really telling someone when you call them a slut isn’t necessarily that they’re sexually promiscuous (which may or may not be true and is none of your damn business). Girls and women get called — and will call each other — sluts and whores for reasons that often have nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with the urge to hurt, isolate, or punish someone for being the wrong class, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong kind of feminine or just the wrong kind of female.

What you’re really telling them is that they are worthless, they are vile, they are garbage. They don’t deserve to live.

In her snappily entitled ‘Female Purity is Bullshit’, Lindy West references a speech by kidnapping and rape survivor Elizabeth Smart:

Speaking at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, Smart explained why she didn’t try to run from her captors, or even cry for help when they took her out in public:

Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.”

Smart [said] she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

(Which might be why this twelve year old girl hanged herself after cyberbullies harassed her by calling her a slut and a whore.)

As human beings, we’re going to have sexual reactions to each other. We’re hardwired to respond to hotness. We’re going to objectify some of the people some of the time and some of us will be objectified in return. But sensuality, especially female sensuality, is so much richer, more diverse and more complicated than the culture’s one-note presentation of it. How different would this world be if we actually respected the female body?

If we celebrated it?

What would that look like?

photo by Chris Goldberg

May 29, 2013
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20 comments · Add Yours

Not meaning to be rude (I love your article!), but I am curious about when you ended a paragraph with this: the wrong kind of feminine or just the wrong kind of female. Why separate them? Isn’t being feminine and female the same thing?

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That’s not rude at all. :) I think of the feminine and the masculine as, I guess, mental constructs or principles that aren’t necessarily attached to the actual sex. A man can be feminine and a woman can be masculine (and ideally we have elements of both). By ‘wrong kind of feminine’ I was trying to get across the idea of someone expressing her particular brand of femininity that someone else doesn’t approve of because it’s too conventional or not conventional enough. By ‘female’ I was referring to the person.

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Dear Justine,

I agree 200% with this article. But I have to say this is a very large battle to fight. It’s pervasive across cultures, religion, and history, and there are many women who are very happy to follow the path of dressing specifically to ‘not provoke’ (instead of feeling happy, good and sexy and dressing accordingly). And more. In some contexts, large constructions are created to ‘not provoke': Have you ever been inside a mosque for a prayer ritual? The women are only allowed in the back of the mosque so that the ritual, which encapsulate the figure of a human’s forehead on the ground and his (her) rear raised, doesn’t excite the men. The women who told me that reason (while we were in the back of a mosque) were, I would say, satisfied, understanding with the situation and didn’t seem bothered by it. I was tempted to ask if they were excited by the view from the back of the men’s rears, but I didn’t. So despite the uphill battle, this issue is super important, cuts to the core of the value of a woman, and I thank you for raising everyone’s awareness about it.

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We’re all just human, doing the best we can with the tools we are given. Education

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Consider that, in the context of education, society is producing adolescents and young adults who will compete to succeed in exploitation culture. Specific kinds of beauty are rewarded while specific others are discounted and this messaging is delivered 24/7, bombarding formative brains that simply grow to emulate what they’ve learned.

What’s missing is an understanding of human nature in the context of whole Earth’s nature, balance and peace, nurturance and love… all lessons that are learned when curriculum of every subject is drawn through the filter of time spent in nature. As we become more and more urbanized, more and more numerous, the failure of education to recognize this basic need is more and more resulting in exploitative adults, preening narcissism as their only means of deriving self-respect and paying respect to others.

Celebrity culture. Superman. The sex kitten. We invented it all.

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As a woman my first instinct is hell yeah! but as a mother who has just finished the trenches of raising both a young man and a young woman through their teen years, respectively my children are 19 and 22 now, I have to say hold on a minute. I think in our quest as women to accept and own our sexuality we forget that some societal boundaries do have valid reasoning behind them. There is a time and place to be provocative and sexy just as there is a time and place to be conservative and sedate and we are doing a lousy job of teaching young women and young men when to know the difference.

Also women are not separate from society we are a part of society just like men are and compromise is not always an evil thing that some would like us to believe. Sometimes strategically we need to lose a battle to win the war.

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I’m not arguing with any of that. But I don’t think slut-shaming is the answer. Nor do I think it’s right to disrespect a woman just because she’s “inappropriate”. The idea seems to be — as reflected in the quote that opens the piece — that a woman who acts outside of the conventional idea of what it means to be ‘good’ is somehow not worthy of “respect and compassion”. This is untrue and highly damaging and symptomatic of a larger misogyny that still haunts the culture.

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@justine musk I agree with you that shaming and placing judgements of good and bad on women for their attire is not the way to go about this, but I also don’t think that ignoring and denying men the ownership of their sexuality is right way to go about this either. It is simple in concept but a bitch to do in the real world. Which is why I stated that compromise is not always evil. True compromise is entered into freely, equally, and willingly without the threat of coercion or force.

Realistically, there will always be threads of misogyny, racism, classism, ageism, in society, yet that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for the utopian ideal as long as we don’t remove rights of one group to appease another.

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I’m sorry, but how is demanding respect for women regardless of what they’re wearing somehow denying men the right to own their sexuality? I’m all for men owning their sexuality — instead of trying to contain and control, own and possess female sexuality, or projecting their own sexual anxieties and darkness onto women.

(I have sons myself, by the way.)

A woman is not responsible for how a man chooses to manage his sexual reaction to her. (To say otherwise is an insult to *men* as well as dangerous to women.) As soon as we say that she is, we’re on a very slippery slope that starts with shaming a girl for wearing a tank top and ends with stoning a woman because she had sex with the wrong person.

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Well said! Somehow the term “slut-shaming” had escaped me until coming across it a few times in the last week. A wonderful phrase for an ugly act.

In 10th grade (a few decades ago) I was sent home from school for wearing a dress with cut-outs on the sides. I was proud of my home-made frock, but was told by a guidance councilor that it “might give boys ideas.” That wasn’t my intention; I was extremely shy and just liked unusual clothing. The idea I might be sending out signals was pretty alien, as I was definitely not in the va va voom category of some of my friends! Anyway, interesting–and distressing–to see things haven’t changed much.

Very striking photo with the snake, by the way!

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Love the post. I don’t understand why some women feel the need to attack and belittle other women in this way. I also don’t understand the leap in reasoning from ‘tank top’ to ‘sexually promiscuous’. Such a leap is completely irrational. And even if a woman is liberal in her sexual choices, how the hell is that anyone’s business but her own?

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What’s depressing about all of this is that, sometimes, it doesn’t feel like we’ve made much progress in the past 40 years.

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@Stacy Have you ever seen that pic of the elderly woman holding the sign that says, “I cannot believe I STILL have to protest this shit”? That’s kinda how I feel. Seems like the female body and sexuality have *always* been about possession.

But if you’re a mom of a daughter (I’ve got one), one of the ways you can mitigate your own situation is by letting your daughter know a little of the history and economics surrounding fashion–hemlines rise in good times and fall in hard times–and some simple geometry–you get far more miniskirts out of a bolt of fabric from a factory than you do long flowing skirts, so cha-ching!

You can also bookmark this post and let her (and any of your sons) read it. And re-read it, over and over again until they understand the male gaze, why advertising sells to it, and why your daughters are not responsible for it (and your sons are, but they are capable of controlling it). It might take a generation to see a world where people no longer buy what sexy’s sellin’ but it’s worth it.

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As the mother of two young girls, I will say this: Women like to demand that they should be allowed to express their sexuality, that what they where should not be held against them, that we should expect the men of the world not to respond in a sexual manner to what we women present to them. But I am frustrated by the inequality in this statement. I ask: in a room full of 20-somethings, what percentage of skin is exposed with the female portion? Now how about the male portion? Far and away, the females have more body on display. I dont see “male cleavage” in the workplace, or leg, or anything else that might be considered provocative. But the women? They frequently have all of these things.
So: can we as women truly say that its our right to be sexual beings, to express that however we want in our manner of dress, and its up to the man to avoid having any sexual thoughts or behavior as a result, and if they do, its not in any way our fault? Its not like the men are out there dressing in a provocative manner for us to respond to and say, “see? we women dont respond to men that way, so men: you should also be capable of avoiding a sexual reaction!”
It gets back to the blogger’s statement that “On the one hand it teaches girls that the only appropriate appearance is one that works the hotness, and a very particular kind of hotness at that.. On the other hand it teaches girls (and others) that hotness is the domain of the slut, the bimbo, the asking-for-it rape victim.” These two things are incongruous.
I hope to teach my girls that their brains and their humanity and their empathy are what make them wonderful. That they dont need the cleavage and the short skirt to make them special. I want them to know that when they chose the micromini or the plunging neckline they are making a statement that can attract a certain kind of attention because, lets face it, men and women are biological beings programmed to reproduce (thats why there are 7bn of us out there). We cant deny our genetic programming. One can embrace your sexuality without it being pushed into the face of anyone that you should encounter. If a girl in a short denim skirt is showing her panties to the class, it is a distraction, because all of us are programmed to be interested in the human body, and teenagers in particular havent fully learned to control the impulses created by their newly-abundant hormones. If you want to blame someone for a boy’s reaction to that skirt, blame all of our ancestors. But you’ll have to go back a few millennia in the family tree to find the culprits.
It may sound sexist. But I think of it as realist. Men and women are meant to notice each other, be drawn to each other, and perpetuate the species. To deny that a short skirt might catch someone’s attention is to deny our evolutionary past.
BTW, there is a great book out there called FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS, which describes the modern idea of feminism and its quest to embrace sexuality, and contrasts with the Gloria Steinem-era of women’s liberation. I consider it a must read for anyone raising kids these days, especially girls.

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I’ve read FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS and I wouldn’t sum it up as “the modern idea of feminism and its quest to embrace sexuality.” I do think it stresses how difficult it is for women to assert their sexuality in a culture that is so quick to co-opt that sexuality and use it against them.

I am not saying that men should not have a sexual response to provocative dress. I am saying that how they choose to handle that response is *their* responsibility.

I am also not saying that provocative dress is always appropriate. But who gets to decide what is “provocative”, and under what circumstances?

I am saying that we should not slut-shame girls or women; that slut-shaming is wrong, unethical, damaging, and violating, under any circumstances. As the mother of daughters, I would think that you’d agree with that.

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I do agree that slut-shaming is not the way to go, at any stage. Women can be great at eviscerating each other, tearing each other down. And its abhorrent to me that an adult women would use such a technique while attacking young peri-pubescent girls.
What we women need to do a better job of, along with our male partners, is teaching our girls the true value of their worth… and teaching our boys to value those things in us that have nothing to do with our bodies.

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Totally agree. And how can we teach our girls the true value of their worth if we’re not even sure of our own?

Thank you for commenting.

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I’d like to respond to Suzanne’s comment; not to attack, but because I think each point deserves to be critiqued in detail:

“Women like to demand that … the men of the world not to respond in a sexual manner to what we women present to them.”

Men can “respond” all they want, as long as that doesn’t mean harassing, raping, shaming, threatening or coercing. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

“Its not like the men are out there dressing in a provocative manner for us to respond to and say, ‘see? we women dont respond to men that way, so men: you should also be capable of avoiding a sexual reaction!'”

This is comparing apples to oranges since our culture doesn’t sexualize and fetishize men’s bodies the way it does women’s. Men can permissibly bare *more* skin than women (they can walk around bare-chested if they want), but because that behavior isn’t hyper-sexualized, we think nothing of it.

“We cant deny our genetic programming.”

Except that, as seen above, it isn’t about genetic programming. It’s about cultural programming. If we fetishized men as much as we fetishize women, we’d have just as many people policing men’s clothing choices because of the potential “distraction” – but we don’t. Sexual behavior is learned, not innate. (Psychology can attest to that.)

“If a girl in a short denim skirt is showing her panties to the class, it is a distraction…”

It’s a distraction because we make it a distraction. According to other cultures, a girl showing her elbow to the class is a distraction. If we’re trying to cut down on distractions, we should stop inventing them where none exist.

“To deny that a short skirt might catch someone’s attention is to deny our evolutionary past.”

No. A short skirt is not inherently “sexy.” If there were any attire that were inherently sexy (as determined by our evolutionary heritage), you would see it across cultures, across civilizations, because that’s what all people would wear when they were trying to attract a mate or have sex. But that’s not what we see. We see a variety of attire, most of which bears little or no resemblance to a miniskirt.

To sum up, I have little patience for those who think the variety and complexity of sexual behavior can be attributed to evolution or genetics. We’re not automatons ruled by an identical set of sexual impulses. I think it smacks of futilism and demonstrates a lack of cultural perspective. If you don’t recognize the way your own notions are shaped by your culture, how can you hope to critique it?

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Ah, Stanley Teitel. When I attended Stuyvesant (class of 1990) he was a physics teacher. He highly encouraged the wearing of short skirt in those days, and, in fact, there is a photo of him in the yearbook hugging a female student. A distraction, indeed.

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The truly enlightened person takes responsibility for not only his/her own life, but for how it is received.

In this connection (and several others) I recommend Shankar Vedantam’s “The Hidden Brain.” (either that or Merleau-Ponty’s “Phenomenology of Perception”

This discussion needs to be informed by human limitations. For example, two kinds of people exist: people who are prejudiced and don’t know it, and people who are prejudiced and know it. There is no third option.

Here are some passages that might be of interest:

The gist of the book is that an awful lot of our lives goes unnoticed. The downside to
unconscious living is that we are naturally prejudiced. For example, Vedantam cites studies done with toddlers who associated unfamiliar faces and races with less-than-optimum behavior (the black faces were those of bad people).

So we are naturally prejudiced. In the case of the toddlers study, even when they were read stories where the black person was the hero who helped the white kids, they did not believe it possible. In fact, when the toddlers who had heard this story were asked to re-tell it, they made the white kids into the heroes, and the black into an unworthy recipient of their help. In other words, they entered the fact-free zone that Fox and others exploit so well to turn fear of “the other” into exploitable action, regardless of the facts.

A few other topics covered, besides racism: gun laws, public policy, gender bias, etc. Doubly interesting, too, because Vedantan is East Indian, and has been on the receiving end of bias.

The quotes:

From Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain

Before he parted ways with Wright, Obama himself said he felt his church was not particularly controversial. Wright was certainly inflammatory and given to rhetorical excess, but this partly had to do with the theatricality of sermons in general and the style of the black church in particular. Obama once said Wright “is like an old uncle who says things I don’t always agree with.”

But if Wright had a tendency toward overblown rhetoric, most blacks had little problem with the emotional truth of his message: African Americans are 447 percent more likely than white Americans to be imprisoned and 521 percent more likely to be murdered. There is a five-to-one wealth gap between whites and blacks at birth, blacks live five years fewer on average than whites, and the black infant mortality rate is nearly one and a half times the white infant mortality rate. Wouldn’t it be odd not to be angry? But once Wright’s comments surfaced in the national media, and excerpts from his sermons were replayed endlessly on cable television, it was no longer possible for the Obama campaign to sell its “we are all Americans first” message. The America that Wright described felt like a cruel caricature to many whites. Which version of reality, Obama’s opponents asked, did the candidate endorse? Hillary Clinton sat down for a lengthy interview with Bill O’Reilly of FOX News, and agreed with the conservative commentator that Obama had some explaining to do. Where the country had seen in Obama only a quiet, well-spoken Harvard­ educated lawyer, the Wright episode raised questions about whether. Obama was secretly the kind of militant black activist that many whites abhorred.

p. 228 . The Hidden Brain

When people spread racist lies about a black candidate, the obvious response was righteous indignation, but the more effective response was apparently to approach the problem sideways–to tell voters that the way they felt was understandable, but to ask them to “take a chance” on the candidate. Racist beliefs, in other words, were best left unchallenged if you wanted to persuade someone to vote for your candidate. I started to understand why Obama’s approach had succeeded where so many other black politicians had failed; his campaign’s conscious decision not to cry foul, not to voice the righteous indignation to which he was surely entitled, was the only way he could win.

I asked Celinda Lake about this after the election. She acknowledged that there was a tension between fighting stereotypes and trying to get a candidate elected. But she pointed out that if getting Obama into the White House involved making some compromises, it was also the case that Obama’s election promised to reduce racism in the United States as nothing else could. The hidden brain learns through blind repetition, and Obama’s election meant the country and the world would spend the next several years being bombarded with counter-stereotypical messages about a very smart, articulate, and charismatic black man–who happened to be the most powerful person on the planet.

[Gun laws - after a discussion which revealed that people's unconscious bias is that guns protect them, even though the facts say otherwise. For example, when Washington D.C. banned handguns, the suicide rate fell 23%... so the feeling of safety is belied by fact]

People feel safer barreling down a highway at seventy miles an hour-without seat belts-than they do sitting in a passenger plane going through turbulence. The fact that we are in control of the car gives us the illusion of safety, even though all the empirical evidence shows we are safer in the plane.

Suicide rates in states with high levels of gun ownership are much higher than in states that have low levels of gun ownership. Alabama, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico have twice the rate of suicide of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, and New York. The United States as a whole has a very high suicide rate compared to other industrialized countries.

Researchers working for the federal government once examined the suicide rate among children in the United States and twenty-five other industrialized countries over a single year. The suicide rate among American children was more than twice the average suicide rate among children in the other twenty-five countries. The homicide rate among children in the United States was five times higher. Guns were responsible for much of this. If you measured only gun-related homicide and suicide, American children were eleven times more I likely than children in the other twenty-five countries to commit suicide by shooting themselves, were nine times more likely to be killed in
accidental shootings, and were sixteen times more likely to be murdered. There were 1107 children shot to death in all the countries; 957 of these victims-86 percent-were children in the United States.

The researchers Arthur Kellermann and Donald Reay once examined all gun-related deaths over a lengthy period of time in King County in the state of Washington. They were trying to find evidence for the common intuition that gun owners are safer because they can protect themselves and their families should someone break into their homes. Kellermann and Reay identified nine deaths during the period of the study where people shot and killed an intruder. These are the stories that gun advocates endlessly relate to one another. In the same period, guns in people’s homes were implicated in twelve accidental deaths and forty-one homicides–usually family members shooting, one another. The number of suicides? Three hundred and thirty-three.

p. 254 . The Hidden Brain

There is no use complaining about the hidden brain, or wishing it away. … There is nothing we can do about it. But there is something we can do about our actions. We can choose to. allow our actions to be guided by reason rather than instinct, choose to set up national and international institutions that respond instantly to humanitarian crises, rather than wait far our heartstrings to be pulled by stories of individual tragedy. If we rely on our moral telescopes, there will be people in a hundred years who ask how the world could have sat an its hands through so many genocides in the twenty-first century.

Making the unconscious conscious is difficult because the central obstacle lies within ourselves. But putting reason ahead of instinct and intuition is also what sets us apart from every other species that has ever lived. Understanding the hidden brain and building safeguards to protect us against its vagaries can help us be more successful in our everyday lives. It can aid us in our battle against threats and help us spend our money more wisely. But it can also do something more im­portant than any of those things: It can make us better people.

For all the ways this book has shown how the rational mind is unequal to the machinations of the hidden brain, this is also a book that [p.255] argues that reason is our only bulwark against bias. Our hidden brain will always make some criminals seem more dangerous, and some presidential candidates seem less trustworthy, because of the color of their skin. Terrorism, psychopaths, and homicide will always seem scarier to us than obesity, smoking, and suicide. The heartbreaking story about the single puppy lost at sea will make us cry more quickly than a dry account of a million children killed by malaria. In every one of these cases, reason is our only rock against the tides of unconscious bias.

It is our lighthouse and our life jacket. It is–or should be–our voice of conscience.

p. 106 . The Hidden Brain

[At the end of a chapter about about Gender Bias:]

I asked [a transgender professor] about interpersonal dynamics before and after her transition. “You get interrupted when you are talking, you can’t command attention, but above all you can’t frame the issues,” she told me. With a touch of wistfulness, she compared herself to [a transexual who became a man]. “Ben has migrated into the center, whereas I have had to migrate into the periphery.”

I want to tell you another story, a personal story. On its surface, it has nothing to do with the hidden brain, bias, or sexism. But stay with me [p.107] a second. The story has an unexpected insight into the strange canvasses that [previously cited transexuals and other gender bias studies] have painted for us.

Shortly after I started work on this chapter, I took a vacation wIth my family. For me, the highlight of our destination–the tiny island of Isla Mujeres in Mexico–was a wonderful snorkeling opportunity off the southwestern coast. When I arrived at the snorkeling spot, it was noon. The water was calm and warm, the December sun glorious. The coral reef that lay a short distance away had been damaged in a recent storm, but it was growing back. At the southern lip of a small bay, officials had cordoned off the reef from swimmers with lines attached to buoys in order to allow the reef to grow. The cordoned-off area was about two hundred and fifty feet from my deck chair. The lines and buoys continued out of sight around a solid wall of rocks.

I have a complicated love affair with the water. I didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult. Well into my twenties, I carried the kind of unreasonable fear of water that you do not have if you learn to swim as a child. A considerable part of my enjoyment of the water lies in demonstrating to myself, over and over, that I have conquered my mortal fear. I am a decent swimmer, but I also know my fear has not completely disappeared. When things go wrong in the water, I easily panic.

After several dips, I decided to take one final excursion-this time around the edge of the bay. I felt happy and wonderful and fit; the water was calm. I suspected some of the best snorkeling lay around the edge of the rocks, two hundred fifty feet away. There were no signs posted that warned of any danger.

With a good lunch in my stomach, I felt I could easily swim around the edge of the bay and back. I briefly thought about donning a life jacket and flippers, but de­cided against it. The life jacket would slow me down, and flippers don’t allow for the kind of maneuverability I like when I am snorkeling over a shallow reef.

The moment I got into the water and headed for the edge of the bay, I knew I had made the right decision to swim without a life jacket or flippers. I felt strong and good. I had done a lot of swimming that day already and was surprised at how smoothly I was kicking through [p.108] the water. The trip would be child’s play; the way I was feeling, I knew I could easily swim well past the edge of the bay. I struck out pur­posefully to the lip of rocks. I imagined seeing myself from the deck chairs back on land, disappearing from view around the rocks.

The water felt suddenly cooler as I rounded the lip of the bay. It felt pleasant. I kept within ten or fifteen feet of the line attached to the buoys. From my side of the line, the ocean side, I could see the coral reef growing back within the protective arc. The water was now twenty or thirty feet deep. The reef and the fish were lovelier and more plentiful than anything close to the main snorkeling area. All the other swimmers were staying in the main area. I was alone in the water and hidden from view. It felt delicious, as though I had the whole reef to myself.

My legs and arms felt stronger than ever. Each kick took me several feet; my technique was better than I remembered. I lengthened my stroke, feeling the pull of cool water against my torso. I felt graceful. Without realizing it, through steady practice, I had become a very good swimmer. I felt proud of myself.

I knew from a previous visit that there was a recreational park area to the south with some excellent snorkeling, and I wanted to reach it before turning around. But after swimming ten minutes or so past the lip of rocks, all I could see when I lifted my head from the water was gray sea. Enough, I told myself. Time to turn around.

I pivoted and started to kick my way back. A particularly lovely piece of coral lay just beneath me. But as I watched for it to go by as I swam past, the coral did not budge. I kicked again and again. It was as though I were swimming in place, stuck with invisible glue to a single spot. My fear of the water, long dormant, opened one monstrous eye.

I instantly realized my grace and skill on the way out had not been grace and skill at all. I had been riding an undercurrent. I would now have to fight it on the way back. The reef did not look beautiful anymore. The water looked too deep. No one on land could see me. Why had I not worn a life jacket? How insane not to have donned flippers. I kicked and pulled and kicked and pulled. I was working much harder than before, but I was not traveling several feet with each [p. 109] stroke; each effort bought me mere inches. My breathing in my own ears sounded labored, a huge pair of bellows shouting over the din of the sea.

I debated whether to turn around and go with the current, in the hope of reaching the recreation area I had seen during my previous visit, and then hauling myself onto land. But I was no longer sure if there even was a recreation area anymore. Perhaps it had been closed-because of dangerous undercurrents. If the recreation area did not exist, I knew I would quickly find myself in water well beyond my swimming ability. Currents from the east and west met in a ferocious battle near the southernmost edge of the island. Expert often say that the best way to fight an undercurrent is to swim out and around it. In this case, that would have meant swimming out to sea, but the thought
filled me with terror. I had to go back the way I’d come.

I was gripped by an absolute sense of the lunacy of what I had done. There were no lifeguards in the snorkeling area, no boats. No one could see me. I lived the usual sedentary life of many urban professionals; my athletic exploits were mainly weekend heroics. What had made me think I was really fit enough to swim out so far when I had already exerted myself so much that day?

I had not traveled more than halfway back to the edge of the bay when I decided I could go no farther. I was exhausted by the current. It was all I could do to hold the panic down, to keep pulling and kicking and breathing. I feared the onset of cramps. And over and over, I asked myself how I could have missed the existence of the current until the moment I turned around and had to fight it.

I don’t know where the strength came from to make it back. Perhaps it was the image of my daughter, who had just turned two, wait­ing for me on the shore. When I finally stepped back onto land, I was on the verge of collapse. I had had a narrow escape.

Perhaps it is clear to you why I told you this story. Unconscious bias influences our lives in exactly the same manner as that undercurrent that took me out so far that day. When undercurrents aid us, as they did when Joan Roughgarden [a transexual mentioned previously] first arrived at Stanford, we are invariably unconscious of them. We never credit the undercurrent for [p.110] carrying us so swiftly; we credit ourselves, our talents, our skills. I was completely sure that it was my swimming ability that was carrying me out so swiftly that day. It did not matter that I knew in my heart that I was a very average swimmer, it did not matter that I knew that I should have worn a life
jacket and flippers. On the way out, the idea of humility never occurred to me. It was only at the moment I turned back, when I had to go against the current, that I even realized the current existed.

Our brains are expert at providing explanations for the outcomes we see. People who swim with the current never credit it for their success, because it genuinely feels as though their achievements are produced through sheer merit. These explanations are always partially true–people who do well in life usually are gifted and talented. If we achieve success through corrupt means, we know we got where we are because we cheated. This is what explicit bias feels like. But when we achieve success because of unconscious privileges, it doesn’t feel like cheating. And it isn’t just the people who flow with the current who are unconscious about its existence. People who fight the current all their lives also regularly arrive at false explanations for outcomes. When they fall behind, they blame themselves, their lack of talent. Just as there are always plausible
explanations for why some people succeed, there are always plausible explanations for why others do not. You can always attribute failure to some lack of perseverance, foresight, or skill. It’s like a Zen riddle: If you never change directions, how can you tell there is a current?

Most of us–men and women–will never consciously experience the undercurrent of sexism that runs through our world. Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine. We may have our suspicions, but we cannot know for sure, because most men will never experience life as a woman and most women will never know what it is like to be a man. It is only the transgendered who have the moment of epiphany, when they suddenly face a current they were never really sure existed, or suddenly experience the relief of being carried by a force larger than themselves. The men and women who make this transition viscerally [p. 111] experience something that the rest of us do not. They experience the unfairness of the current.

I am no different than I was, so I should, on its face, be able to command just as much authority to reframe issues or have my considered pinion placed on the table as I used to,” Joan Roughgarden told me. In my opinion, because of what I have been through, I don’t think my work has ever been better.”

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